The United States’ top diplomat will meet virtually with Southeast Asian officials next week, a senior State Department official said on Saturday, as President Joe Biden’s administration seeks to show the region is a priority while also addressing the crisis in Myanmar.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken will attend virtual meetings for five consecutive days, including annual meetings of the 10 foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other nations and separate meetings of the Lower Mekong subregion countries Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand.
“I think it’s a clear demonstration of our commitment to the region,” said the State Department official, who briefed the Reuters news agency on condition of anonymity.
In recent years top US officials have not always attended ASEAN meetings and have sometimes sent more junior officials to the region’s summits.
The virtual meetings come after the Biden administration in its early days was seen as paying little attention to the region of more than 600 million people, that is often overshadowed by China, which the US sees as its major foreign policy challenge.
But top US officials have made a string of visits to the region in recent months.
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand in May and June, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was in Vietnam and the Philippines this week, and Vice President Kamala Harris is set to visit Singapore and Vietnam.
On Sunday, the US shipped 3 million doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to Vietnam and it has sent doses to other Southeast Asian countries, as well.
However, an agreement it reached in March with Japan, Australia and India to provide one billion doses to the region stalled due to an Indian export ban.
By mid-next week the US will have donated 23 million doses to countries in the region, which is experiencing a surge of the coronavirus linked to the highly contagious Delta variant.
Representatives of Myanmar’s military government will also take part in the meetings next week.
The country’s military rulers have been subjected to a string of US sanctions since the army staged a coup on February 1 and arrested elected leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi, prompting widespread protests.
In a meeting with ASEAN foreign ministers earlier this month, Blinken called on the countries to take action to end violence and restore democracy in Myanmar.
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom warned this week that half of Myanmar’s population of 54 million could become infected with COVID-19 within the next two weeks.
“The virus is spreading through the population, very fast indeed,” Britain’s UN Ambassador Barbara Woodward told an informal Security Council discussion on Myanmar. “By some estimates, in the next two weeks, half of the population of Myanmar could be infected with COVID,” she said.